Microsoft Excel: Make your days more colorful

By J. Carlton Collins, CPA

Q. Our company manages home construction projects, and we track the time required to complete each project task in Excel. Is it possible to format each task's duration (compared with the total project), using different colors so it is easier to visually analyze the data. If so, how?

A. Excel's Color Scale format can be used to visually compare and analyze data. For example, Excel's three-color gradient scales can be applied to a range of cells resulting in a gradient of color shades designating lower, middle, and upper values. The resulting color scheme might make it easier to identify trends, such as slower- or faster-performing subcontractors. In the simplified example shown below, I applied Excel's Color Scale formatting to each project's duration column (the column labeled Days) as follows: I started by highlighting the Days column for Project 1 (cells D5 through D29 in this example) and then from the Home tab I selected Conditional Formatting, Color Scales and then selected the Red-Yellow-Green Color Scale option.

I repeated these steps for each project and also for the Average Days column. As a result, Excel highlights those tasks requiring the most and least proportion of time using various color gradients (i.e., the darker red gradients highlight the longer time portions, the darker green gradients highlight the shorter time proportions, and the yellowish colors highlight the time proportions in between). This formatting enables you to scan each row to identify specific project tasks that took longer or shorter amounts of time to complete than expected, compared with the project's total time. For example, Project 1's task 25 (highlighted in darker orange) stands out as having taken longer than expected to complete (as a percentage of the total project), compared with Projects 2, 3, and 4, as well as the average for all projects (which are highlighted with greenish and yellowish colors). You can download an example of this workbook at carltoncollins.com/color.xlsx.

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About the author

J. Carlton Collins (carlton@asaresearch.com) is a technology consultant, a CPE instructor, and a JofA contributing editor.

Note: Instructions for Microsoft Office in “Technology Q&A” refer to the 2007 through 2016 versions, unless otherwise specified.

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